It’s easy to talk about love, the birds and the bees, perfect days feeding animals in zoos and drinking cheap wine and fruit juice coolers in parks. It’s easy to find a million songs about the ‘glory of love’ and how their boo is the bestest, sexiest, most wonderful old man, old lady, honeybunny, pumpkin supreme. But fuck all that, friends. If you are in love today and spending the morning reading this blog instead of having a quickie before work, sprinkling rose petals on the bed and putting the finishing touches to the night’s date plans, then is it really love at all? Besides, like a wise woman once said, “what’s love gotta do with it?” Ike was infamously nasty and abusive to his delightful and feisty wife. (If you have not yet watched Tina, the 2021 five part documentary it is a powerful story, well worth the time and effort. Available on Amazon HBO Max). In honor of Tina, who saw her career and life take a nosedive after her 1978 divorce from Ike, let’s start off this playlist by agreeing, yeah, Tina, what has love got to do with any of it?
10) What’s Love Got To Do With It (Songwriters: Terry Britten / Graham Lyle)
No one else could ever do this song like Tina Turner. The emotion and power in her voice, that plaintive growl in her voice, with her sweet tone cutting through the attitude and sass. Tina is inspirational. The music video sees Tina as seductive but rejecting of men, and admired by the girls who see her carefree soul and beauty. Tina walks between a dancing couple, telling them “what’s love got to do with it!” It is not a question but a statement, and who can blame her when Ike treated her like he did. Ike wrote in his autobiography:
“Sure, I’ve slapped Tina. We had fights and there have been times when I punched her to the ground without thinking. But I never beat her.”Taking Back My Name: The Confessions, Ike Turner (co-written by Nigel Cawthorne)
Love has nothing to do with any of it, this war between men and women. So many men don’t even see it as wrong to hit their female partner. Downplaying punching Tina to the ground as a minor thing, not a ‘beating’ is one of the saddest things I have ever read. It is a testament to Tina’s strength that she went on to thrive without him, despite him, and retained all that power in her voice and spark in her creativity.
9) Birds, Neil Young
When it is over, it’s over. Neil’s high-plaintive falsetto whining shouldn’t work, but it just does. There is no reason why Neil’s voice should be comforting, and yet it is. This song should be just filler – after all it is accompanied on piano, not guitar, and is only two minutes twenty two seconds of sound on what remains subjectively Young’s best album, After The Goldrush. However, Birds is a perfect little snapshot of a heart who loved, lost and hurt, but is devoid of hatred or bitterness. In short, it is the breakup song for the breakup we want to have, but let’s face it, who is generally that generous when broken hearts and failed relationships are on the table? Young’s definitive, “it’s over,” plays against the sweetness of wishing the best for the person they are leaving behind. It sounds like a lullaby for a baby, and has an almost parental care about the sound and the lyrics. Feathers – signs of care from above, angelic or avian, falling to remind his lost love of the ‘way to go’, to guide and to comfort, fall all over this song. This is not the break up song we want, but perhaps the one we need, devoid of hatred, spite or bitterness, but moving on all the same. “It’s over.”
8) Paul, Big Thief
Big Thief’s ode to a doomed relationship, Paul, never fails to make me smile. It has the perfect lines:
In the blossom of the monthsPaul, Big Thief
I was sure that I’d get driven off with thought
So I swallowed all of it
As I realized there was no one who could kiss away my shit
Sometimes it just isn’t right. This song is the epitome of “its not you…it’s me”. This song is full of truth-bombs: Adrienne sings “The last time I saw Paul, I was horrible, and almost let him in.” Yes, sometimes the best thing for someone is to stay far away from them. No one else can ever kiss away that pain, that burden, that baggage. Sometimes love is not love, it is just drunkenness, and a fumble in a car seat with the headlights off down some dark turning. “See you are a gentle baby, I couldn’t stay, I would only cause you pain,” can exist alongside, “I’ve been burning for you baby, since the minute I left.” You know what they say – if you love someone, something, let it go, let it be free. Paul speaks to my soul. I am that voice, that soul-sister of the narrator that pushes away almost everyone who ever reached out for me romantically, knowing it was for their own good.
7) Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You Led Zeppelin
Sometimes anti-love is not best expressed lyrically, but musically. Those three little words that are obsessed over and desired and needed are best countered by a short sharp shock: “I ain’t joking, woman, I gotta ramble”, and Led Zep’s bombastic guitar diatribe, demanding freedom and the open road. The sweetness of Page’s picking, combined with Plant’s electric soaring vocals are both inspiration and a power-pack, charged infusion of grit and cruelty. The push-you-pull-me of the ‘come hither..then get away’ has never been so beautifully expressed in music. This volatile song is the sound of an unhealthy relationship, that has no future, and a painful past. You can’t love a rock n’ roll man…or woman – we always love our freedom more.
6) Blonde In The Bleachers, Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell knows something about being free, and as “she tapes her regrets to the microphone stand” there is a brutal self examination and honesty in her words, as always. Putting herself in the shoes of her ‘rock and roll man’, and taking herself outside of the song, as a nameless ‘blonde in the bleachers’, following her man home like a crazed fan only to realize that he misses ‘living alone’. The ‘sweet mysteries’ of the road, the lure of the ‘love ’em and leave ’em’ lifestyle are always calling to her man. Joni understands, even if she does not like what she knows to be true, that to be monogamous and committed is just not on the cards, it is too much to ask, even if it is non negotiable:
‘Cause it seems like you’ve gotta give up
Such a piece of your soul
When you give up the chase
Feeling it hot and coldBlonde In The Bleachers, Joni Mitchell, For The Roses
You’re in rock ‘n’ roll
It’s the nature of the race
It’s the unknown child
So sweet and wild
It’s too good to waste
Joni leads the forward charge into healthy understanding, accepting the facts, but then moving on like the ‘wild seed’ carried on the wind that she sings about in the final track of the For The Roses, Let The Wind Carry Me. Embracing freedom instead of the shackles and chains of love is not just for the boys. Let Joni lead the way!
5) Strong Enough, Sheryl Crow
Short answer to the question ‘are you strong enough to be my man’ is…abso-fucking-lutely not. I love and hate this song at the same time. It is the song of every moment of weakness, every desperate, “lie to me, I promise I’ll believe…but please don’t leave” bullshit pathetic, pleading, shameful act of trying to stop someone leaving who has already checked out. Listen to it and feel the shame burn. I used to listen to this song over and over again when my marriage was in trouble. I would play it, hoping he got what I was trying to say, that I wanted him to lie, to give me an excuse to stay, to say to me he would never hurt me again…but he never got the message. He never did promise not to hurt me again. He never did say it was the last time, and I was always left trying to shore up the only security and safety I had in order to stay housed and with my babies. If I ever feel like giving up I listen to this song, realize how far I have come, and give myself a strict talking to. Twain is that mirror that reflects back something no woman wants to see: weakness in the face of an abusive and miserable relationship.
4) It’s Too Late, Carole King
Wallowing is sometimes the only sane response to a breakup, staying ‘in bed all morning just to pass the time’, as Carole sings. Sometimes that love has gone, the attraction is dead, and you just ‘can’t fake it’. When it is over, it’s over.
3) I Hate Myself For Loving You, Joan Jett
I love Joan Jett. I mean what’s there not to love? Sexy, cute, powerful, talented…downright adorable rock and roll goddess, Joan is the bees knees. Loud rawk is the only way to burn out the cobwebs, shake off the malaise and find the energy to ‘hate (yourself) for loving (them)! The anthem for everyone who knows they shouldn’t but just can’t help themselves.
2) Love Hurts, Nazareth
Lighters aloft, tears in eyes? Check. I can’t help but admit that watching this video of Nazareth singing Love Hurts kinda makes me sick in my old age. The days of pining over the ideals of romantic love are far behind me. Love can go take a hike, thumb a ride the opposite way down the highway whichever I am going in. No prizes here for clever lyrics, “Love is like a flame that burns you when it’s hot” anyone? Yet, love is such a cliché that this schmaltz fits in perfectly with my anti-Valentine’s Day rantings. Love is? Well it might be that juicy slide guitar and some heartfelt sadness at love lost, love elusive….and love which can’t stand up, (so Lou Reed sings in Pale Blue Eyes, my favorite love song of all time) so just cheats and lies…..
1 If You See Her Say Hello Bob Dylan
If you see her, say hello She might be in North Saigon She left here in a hurry I don't know what she was on You might say that I'm in disarray And for me time's standing still Oh, I've never gotten over her I don't think I ever will A bright light from me, I saw A shattering of souls Just one of them reckless situations Which nobody controls Well the menagerie of life rolls by Right before my eyes And we'll do the best we can Which should come at no surprise If you're making love to her Watch it from the rear You never know when I'll be back Or liable to appear Oh, it's as natural to dream of peace As it is for rules to break But right now I got not much to lose So you better stay awake Sundown, silver moon Hitting on the days My head can't understand no more What my heart don't tolerate But I know she'll be back some day Of that there is no doubt And when that moment comes, Lord Give me the strength to keep her out.
Dylan’s If You See Her Say Hello, from the ultimate break up album, Blood on the Tracks is my number one pick for break up, love-to-hate/hate-to-love songs. It can’t be just any recording and version of this bitter, twisted and cathartic piece of art, it has to be the particularly bitter and vindictive Civic Center Theater, Lakeland, FL, April 18, 1976 version of the lyrics, with it’s once in a lifetime performance. In the end, it is too much to ask to wish someone well like Neil Young, it is too damaging to pine like Sheryl Crow, or be understanding and accepting like Joni. No. Sometimes it is easier and more satisfying to admit you are not going to get over your lost lover and broken relationship, and to spit venom out at the whole mess until you simply feel better. Catharsis instead of wallowing is the way to recovery.
This version is pure hatred, jealousy and bitterness. His lost love – his ex-wife Sara, for whom the entire album was written, detailing their divorce – does not get off lightly or indeed at all. He places her as possibly in ‘North Saigon’ with the commie Viet Kong regime, and sings that he ‘doesn’t know what she was on’ – immediately linking her to an enemy regime a dictatorship, whilst also claiming she was also out of her mind on drugs. It doesn’t matter if these claims had any veracity. Nothing matters in the maelstrom of emotion when love falls to pieces. That dichotomy of “I hate you. You are insane. You are evil: I’ll never get over you” probably should not be said on a public stage, especially when there are children involved, but its brutal honesty is to the benefit of the listener. We exist for that feeling that we grok with someone else, that we are understood, that we are not alone. We need to know that we are together in this mess of human experience, and Dylan is the master of this art. Dylan understands, and is brave enough to show us he gets it, he has lived it, and he feels it too. This bravery burns up the artist, but comforts the listener. This is a song to shout along to with tears running down your face, screaming the pain into the ether.
Dylan pulls it back in the second verse, trying to claw back self control, to claim that ‘we all do the best we can’. It does indeed come as no surprise, yet by the third verse this attempt to hold onto reasonable feelings and expression fails, and he is back to spitting poison words. “If you are making love to her, watch it from the rear” he croons into the microphone, addressing her new lover, warning them to stay awake, because he could return at any moment, bent on revenge. By the final verse, Dylan is spent. The sun is down. His rage has burnt out. He has but one request for the sun god who rises above his head. When she returns, and he knows the bitch will be back….like we all know how these betrayers always come back to nibble at the toes of forgiveness…to be given the damn ‘strength to keep her out.’
The final line might be the most brutal Dylan ever wrote. It is not the puerile childishness of Ballad in Plain D, where young Bob had a good ole whine about sisters and situations, no. This is the sound of a grown man’s heart breaking so totally, he will never recover from it, as evidenced by Dylan’s later total misogyny.
(bonus track to wipe away the bad taste)
For all Bob’s fury, Cohen has an equal amount of forgiveness and enough sadness to drown a world of sorrows. His wife has cheated on him, yet he forgives his ‘brother, his killer’. Perhaps that ‘killer’ is Dylan. Nothing would surprise my any more. This love letter to the man who screwed his wife is full of little quips, like “you are living for nothing now, I hope you are keeping some kind of record…” In the end, when the anger has burnt out, when the tears have been cried, there is nothing else except sadness, and Cohen does sadness like no other singer songwriter.
And you treated my woman to a flake of your life
And when she came back she was nobody’s wife
Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth
One more thin gypsy thief
Well, I see Jane’s awake
She sends her regards
And what can I tell you my brother, my killerFamous Blue Raincoat, Leonard Cohen
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I’m glad you stood in my way
Cohen thanks the ‘gypsy thief’ for taking the sadness and trouble from ‘Jane’s eyes’. There is nothing to fear from Leonard. If Jane wants to go, Leonard does not hold the keys to her cage – his ‘woman is free’. Cohen is egoless and shattered and utterly beautiful. Perhaps love is possible after all, even if it is agape the highest and purest form of love and not the philia, the inferior romantic love we crave.